A slogan whose ambiguity serves a purpose

The fact that the slogan “Defund the police” needs explanation is a plus because it serves as a quick, catchy way into a larger, more complex story.

The slogan “Defund the police” has been shouted during protests over the May 25 death of George Floyd. Merriam-Webster defines defund as “to withdraw funding from.” The Cambridge Dictionary puts it in plainer terms: “to stop providing the money to pay for something.” This rallying cry seems crystal clear and quite radical: Stop giving money to police departments.

It turns out to be a lot more complicated, as the Monitor reported in a June 7 article, “‘Defund the police’: What does that mean exactly?” For some people, defund does indeed translate to “get rid of,” as activist Mariame Kaba writes in the New York Times opinion column “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police” (June 12). Yet the majority of protesters don’t seem to take it literally, understanding it instead as a call to redirect some funds away from police departments and into other community services. 

Some language experts argue that the ambiguity of “Defund the police” makes it useless. Branding consultant Nancy Friedman writes, “Whenever you have to explain a slogan by saying ‘What we really mean is ...’, it’s a bad slogan and you’re losing the argument.” How can people protest in support of a phrase if they can’t agree on its meaning?  

Perhaps, though, the slogan serves its purpose. Democratic-leaning voters are spread across an ideological spectrum. Slightly fewer than half consider themselves to be “liberal,” while 51% identify as “moderate” or “conservative,” according to the Pew Research Center. (Two-thirds of Republicans, in contrast, identify as “conservative.”) “Defund the police” appeals to both poles. Progressives can read it as “abolish” and centrists as “reform” or “reallocate resources from,” with the understanding that the details will be hammered out later.

The fact that the slogan needs explanation is a plus. Protesters may disagree about what defunding the police should involve, but they share the view that police violence against Black people can only be eradicated by restructuring many parts of American society. “Defund the police” serves as a quick, catchy way into a larger, more complex story.

When people search for “What does defund the police mean?” they retrieve hundreds of articles and videos, from The Atlantic to Fox News, which explain the racial, economic, and political issues behind the phrase. Its very ambiguity opens a door to nuanced discussions, which can be rare in politics. Political comedian John Oliver explains the slogan as “moving away from a narrow conception of public safety that relies on policing and punishment, and investing in a community’s actual safety net: things like stable housing, mental health services, and community organizations.” That meaning of defund is not in any dictionary.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to A slogan whose ambiguity serves a purpose
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today